Rescuing Historical Fiction?

Do we need rescuing?  A recent mention of Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel “Wolf Hall” in The Economist said, “the book captured the upheavals of the Tudor period and was a critical and popular hit that rescued historical fiction from its bodice-ripper reputation.”

Whoa!  There’s only been one novel that isn’t a bodice ripper, and that’s Ms. Mantel’s?  I think she would be the first to remind The Economist that there are a lot, a very lot, of her fellow historical novelists who don’t write bodice rippers.  But the story, inadvertently, made a very good point.

Serious historical novels do suffer in the public mind (and that seems to include The Economist) by being confused with ‘women’s historical romance’ of the Rosemary Rogers sort in the 1970s–the ones with Fabio on the cover.  It didn’t help when Fabio himself stepped off the covers and started advertising “I can’t believe it’s not butter!” on TV.

Because so many events in history were operatic (heads were cut off, kings de-throned, rivals poisoned) it’s easy to feel that any literature dealing with that must be suspect, or trumped-up melodrama.

I know that when I am introduced to someone and they ask what I do and I say, “I write historical novels” I feel compelled to hurriedly add, “Not THAT kind!”

I wish there were a different designation for the non-bodice-ripper genre of historical fiction.  Does anyone have a good suggestion?  Until then, all of us who try to write serious historical fiction will have to keep adding the disclaimer, “Not THAT kind!”

25 thoughts on “Rescuing Historical Fiction?”

  1. I like the term Docu-drama. It’s seemed to work good for TV. Thank you for what you have given us and Please keep finishing the books like Cleopatra’s with a section that helps divide the line between fact and fiction.
    A historical novel that I wish you would write would be on the Borgias. Actually a series on the Royal Houses of the catholics (those who would be popes) would be as twisted a tale as any of the other Royal Houses of Europe, Asia or Africa.

  2. I agree that not all historical fiction is of a “bodice-ripping” persuasion, but it’s difficult to find those that aren’t. Recently I read an article (I don’t remember where) which said royal historical fiction is quickly becoming the new romance genre. It seems people are hungry for historical fiction in a royal setting, and they want that ripping of the bodice included.

    Personally, I read Margaret George novels because it isn’t romantic. It feels real to me. I connect with the characters in various ways and I love them after I finish reading them, much more than if I read Philippa Gregory.

    As the previous poster said, I hope you write more about the royal houses. Perhaps even along the lines of royal houses we don’t normally think of, such as Pocahantas and the Powhatan Nation. Italians, such as the Medici’s.

    Whatever you choose to write next, I look forward to reading it!

  3. Andre, I appreciate your comments. As it happens, I am just now listening to a lecture series on “The History of the Papacy” which is extremely interesting, put out by “Great Courses” (formerly “The Teaching Company”). It’s a very big subject but I find the early popes much more interesting than the Renaissance ones, including the Borgias. The lecturer said that the popes between 300 and 500 AD are not that well known, which of course makes me want to know more about them!

  4. Meg, you raise some interesting points. It does seem that ‘royal’ has become the new bodice-ripper genre, hiding behind the excuse, “But it really happpened!” Someone told me an editor said the title had to have ‘royal’, ‘throne’, ‘queen/king’ or ‘vow’ in it. That would certainly bear out what you say. On the other hand, some people do want to write about other people at court, seamstresses, musicians, etc but are often told ‘they have no name recognition.’

    I can recommend “Accidents of Providence” to be an excellent intelligent historical novel by a new author, Stacia Brown, set in the early 1600s in England., which is *not* a bodice ripper.

    Thanks for the compliment about my books. I do try to stay away from the swooning romance scenes (even though some of my characters had tempestuous romances). I have been criticized because I kept Elizabeth I a virgin, which I believe she is. There are a ridiculous number of books trying to turn her into a romantic heroine, all aflutter about Robert Dudley. Some even have her having his child. Sorry, I just don’t buy it.

    I do think the Powhatan Nation would be a good topic, and maybe it’s time I turned to my own country, America, for historical inspiration!

  5. What seems to get forgotten is the readers who buy fiction. I recall a statistic about the publishing industry indicating that 5-10% of what is published generates the revenue to sustain works that lose money. This 5-10% tends to be commercial fiction written by popular authors and not “literary” fiction. Much literary fiction isn’t accessible enough to be popular.

    Hilary Mantel seems to have done an admirable job of writing books deserving merit from literary types while at the same time appealing to a sufficiently broad audience to be profitable. We should applaud her for that without denigrating others like those listed on a recent historical fiction survey I conducted. You were in 10th position!

  6. Thanks for your correction, Mary. I did not mean to give the impression I was denigrating other writers. Far from it; in fact, I was doing the opposite. I was instead lamenting the fact that the public seems to hold our genre in low esteem. I’m not sure why, or when this started. I don’t think Hilary Mantel is the lone exception of excellence, as the reviews and media implied (and some outright claimed).

    I especially resented The Economist’s claim that she had ‘rescued’ historical fiction from its lowly status and reputation. I wonder what other historical novels The Economist reads? Not the same ones I read, or you read, obviously, or the ones on the survey list, which had 40 writers on it.

  7. I was writing in support of your viewpoint, Margaret! What I meant to say is that someone claiming that Hilary Mantel is rescuing historical fiction forgets that readers, by and large, do not read highly literary works. Readers certainly told us in the survey the kind of writers they enjoy – Hilary Mantel was on the list but at 20th position. You are 10th … clearly a favourite and well deserved.

  8. Mary, absolutely I agree that literary works aren’t that widely read, even though people do buy them! My editor once told me about the phenomenon of ‘the great unread best sellers’—literary works that people rush out to buy but then don’t read. We were talking about ‘The Name of the Rose’ which I couldn’t get through and was puzzled that it was such a smash. Well…maybe the movie with Sean Connery had something to do with it! I definitely enjoyed that but it was easy to follow. And then, there’s Sean himself…

  9. I am so glad you wrote this posting. I am a historical fiction author as well. The second edition of Calico was released this past April via Little Acorns Publishing House. When I tell people I write historical fiction about Native Americans I always get asked if it is “that kind” of book. I hate it when they ask that. My story does have rape, mention of incest and violence in it but it is not “that kind” of book. I want my readers to focus on the trials my female lead has to go through to become a better person. I just wish more people would take historical fiction books with strong female leads more seriously.
    BTW: You’re writing style helped influence my own. I wrote about it on a guest blog posting and wrote a paper on how you had influenced me on my entrance essay for my Master of Fine Arts. Thank you for writing your words. I have read Cleopatra and Mary Called Magdalene. Mary Called Magdalene changed my life. You can read how at

  10. Allison, thanks very much for telling me about yourself. And I am humbled to know I have influenced your writing style. That’s a great compliment to a writer. (Ray Bradbury influenced mine, and last year, when I was fortunate enough to get his address, I wrote him telling him so. I am so glad I was able to when I did, since he just died at age 91.)

    I wish there were a different word to describe ‘that kind of book’ so the confusion would end between them and us…besides rolling our eyes and saying, ‘that kind of book.’ Sigh…

  11. This is a wonderful little post, Margaret! I’m a Historical “Romance” author (or so Berkley Sensation calls me), but I prefer to refer to my work as “Historical Adventure” or simply “Historical Fiction” because while the romance is key, it’s underlying. My stories revolve around the time period (usually 18th century) and I make it a point of not pulling punches when I describe the day to day difficulties and conditions. As far as “royals” go I have no input because my books follow the lives of non-court personnel.

    Unfortunately, Penguin has designed my covers so that anyone looking for quality historicals will most likely look away. If Fabio strolled onto my cover I wouldn’t be surprised. They are pretty and eye-catching – and deceiving. It concerns me because “romance” readers will get a shock and serious historical readers won’t bother picking it up without a recommendation.

    I have been invited to be a presenter at a provincial Librarians’ conference, and my theme is how Historical Fiction is somewhat like the Rodney Dangerfield of fiction – we don’t get no respect! And yet I have yet to read any good Historical Fiction which hasn’t required incredible amounts of in-depth research.

  12. Thanks for writing me. I have to agree, about your covers…I checked them out and Fabio would definitely feel at home there. Have you any hope of changing how you are marketed? I had the opposite problem—in the U.S. they wanted to keep me strictly out of the supermarket and made my paperbacks all trade, whereas in England they did mass market and I did very well there in the supermarkets. I’d like a wider audience and I don’t think I’m too literary for a general reader.

    In the last few years the standard for how much research is behind historical novels has gone way, way up, for everyone. So I do wish people appreciated our dedication more!

  13. I think we should just call them ‘Margaret George’-type historical novels which means they are masterful, riveting, exciting, mesmerizing, tour-de-force masterpieces of writing which transport you to another time and place and make you feel as if you are actually there listening to these people tell their stories.
    After having read so much fluff YOU brought me back to the historical novel genre. I have been lucky enough since then to read some wonderful historical novels but yours is the standard I compare others to.
    I am currently at page 97 of Wolf Hall and don’t know if I’ll make it to 100. It feels like a chore reading this book and not the excitement I get from reading your work. I might just put it down and read Memoirs of Cleopatra for the 3rd time.
    As Meg said previously…’Whatever you choose to write next, I look forward to reading it!’

  14. Dear Margaret,

    Your book, ” Mary, Queen of Scott’s…” is one of my all time favorites . I loved the attention to detail, the descriptions, the wild adventures that Mary had with the romance of her life, and all the tremendous ups and downs that were the story of her life. And I loved the way I was drawn into this book with Mary’ s last heartbreaking letter before she was beheaded printed at the beginning. Oh, how I would love to see a quality movie made of your movie with a young Sean Connery playing Mary’ s captor! Even though I would never describe this book as a “bodice ripper” I think it’s at close as you have ever gotten, because of the subject matter.

    I have read most of your books but was not interested in two of them–Helen of Troy and Mary Magdalene. Maybe it’s because in the former there are too many battles and Helen is based on mostly myth, as is in the latter when it comes to Mary.

    But mostly I am writing because I want to know if you are writing another book and what the subject matter will be. I have waited a long time for you to get busy because in my opinion, you are the best!

  15. Thank you very much, Brandon. I am very flattered by the level of work you credit me with. I have to confess, I own “Wolf Hall” but I haven’t read it yet. Everyone tells me it’s rather a chore and like most people when I read I want pleasure, not duty! We have enough duty in our lives without adding unnecessary ones. Some day I may read it but probably when I am further removed from my own work and then can see it afresh.

  16. Hi Lady Solk–Thanks for writing me. Hmmm…Sean Connery…now that you mention it…younger, of course. I can see it now. Who for Mary? A younger Meryl Streep? (I can’t think of any actors who are actually young now who could do a reasonable job.) It’s true, this was the most romantic and bodice-ripping novel I’ve written because my character really lived that life.

    You say you have waited a long time. Have you seen my ELIZABETH I novel? It was published last year.

    I’m planning to write about the emperor Nero next, with a part for Boudica the warrior queen as well.

  17. I have read “Wolf Hall” and enjoyed it, but it was a bit of a tough read at some points, although as someone who studied history at the graduate student level, I’m used to rather dry recitations (LOL). It is a shame that many believe that “bodice rippers” are historical fiction — to me, the proper classification would be historical romance. BTW, I’ve read every one of your books and recommend them to friends all the time, finding them just the right mix of fact and fiction that serve to encourage fiction lovers to learn a little bit about history as well as have an enjoyable read. Will look forward to the Nero book and Boudica — my favorites for her life are the Manda Scott series and perhaps my all-time favorite piece of historical fiction “The Eagle and the Raven” by Pauline Gedge.

  18. I am not a writer, although like most voracious readers there is a book in me somewhere!

    When it comes to historical fiction, what turns me off immediately are the bodice-ripping covers. Through experience of going past the cover, the heroine is always green-eyed with sweeping black lashes, and the hero is of the brawny, tawny-haired persuasion. Unfortunately, a few have depicted true historical characters in this fashion. Now any novel is judged by it’s cover…which is not the best way to go. A few gems have been found where the inner pages have actual ‘meat and potatoes’.

    Through trial and error I have found that Sharon Kay Penman, Margaret Campbell Barnes, and yourself (!) write the kind of fiction that keeps my attention. The marketing of these novels doesn’t involve a bosum-heaving young thing with a dark handsome shadow leaning provocatively behind her shoulder. Here’s hoping you have pull with the marketing team to keep this from happening, although with your reputation firmly fixed, I would still read your novels.

    Bring on Boudica!!!

  19. Hi Tracey–
    Your description of the covers made me laugh and reminded me of something my father said he was told, when asking what was the difference between various historical novels. The reply was, “Sometimes the man is on the right on the cover, and sometimes he is on the left.” Things have not changed much. And why does the heroine always have green eyes?
    I think the problem is that the two genres—historical romance and historical fiction—haven’t yet differentiated themselves in the nomenclature or public perception. I wish they would hurry up and split apart as they follow the natural evolutionary roads they are taking. (Like crime novels and cozy mysteries have split.) In the meantime, the confusion between the two leads to some weird marketing decisions. Of course Hilary Mantel doesn’t fall in that category, as well as Sharon Kay Penman and Margaret Campbell Barnes whom you cite. (Thanks for including me!) I’m often sent books to comment on and find that they are really romances, not true historical novels. Luckily Boudica doesn’t lend herself to that treatment so I don’t think there are any heaving bosoms in her story, except heaving with rage and revenge.

    I’m trying to think of other novelists you can count on to avoid the bodice-ripping but I have to admit, there aren’t many. Men don’t have that but they substitute phony violence instead, which is just as bad and just as pandering as the bosoms.

  20. I just discovered your books and am in the process of reading them all. I have really enjoyed all of them. I especially like that you give life to historical women. Are there other writers who also treat historical women well? Unfortunately, I can read books much faster than you can write them so I need to have more authors :-)). jas

  21. I can’t help but think of a writer who managed to cross all lines of historical fiction both intelligently and sensationally, and that would be the late Gary Jennings. Gary’s books contained great detail, were lushly erotic and violent (in the case of his novel, Aztec, shockingly so). At the same time, his writing was compelling, well researched, and continually made me want more. His main characters were never royal, although his pages were well-peppered with mighty kings and queens (Ghengis Khan, Montezuma, Empress Elizabeth). Reading Jennings was always a wild ride into the past. Some of his novels are Spangle (the origins of the American circus), Raptor (main character Thorn, an hermaphodite adventurer), and The Journeyer (Marco Polo).

  22. Hi Margaret,

    It’s me again almost a year later. I keep wondering when you are going to come out with your book on Nero? I am anxiously awaiting my favorite author’s next book! Yes, I did read Elizabeth I and liked it very much, but that was two years ago. I know, I know, it is a tremendous undertaking to research and write a book the way you do, but how much longer do you think it will be?

    I read both of Hillary Mantell’s books. I found Wolf Hall to be very confusing with the use of multiple names when referring to her characters and found her style to be dry, very dry. Her second book was much improved but still not a book I would think about for more than a minute after finishing.

    Maybe I will try reading the book you recommended in one of your comments while I faithfully wait for yours.

    I am curious how Ray Bradbury influenced your writing if you would like to comment.

    Thank you for being.

  23. His death was a great loss to the writing world. He reviewed my “Memoirs of Cleopatra” for the Washington Post and was kind to it. I never got to meet him, though.

  24. Oh my—there are many people writing about historical women. C.W. Gortner, Sarah Dunant, Anne Smith, Juliet Grey, Michelle Moran, Gillian Bagwell, Laurel Corona…and more. If you will check the online Historical Novel Society Review, you’ll find many to pique your interest. They try to review all historical novels published in the U.S.

  25. Hi Madeline—
    Nero is coming along, but trotting, not galloping. It’s nice to know people like you are waiting for him! My fear is that several other writers are beavering away on the subject, quietly. It’s been a long time since there’s been anything about him in the popular literature. Got to hurry before someone else finishes it!

    I still haven’t read Hillary Mantel’s books. Everyone (including you) says “Wolf Hall” is a chore. And, I enjoy more reading about time periods I don’t know much about, because then I learn. I just re-read “Gone with the Wind”, this time to learn about the military part of the civil war. The part leading up to the fall of Atlanta was fascinating…and suspenseful, even though you knew what would happen. (The Rhett Butler thing has never done it for me, anyway. As a literary character, he’s completely inconsistent and not very plausible. Like, where did he learn to be a riverboat pilot? And what were his skills, aside from professional gambling, that made him so successsful? Maybe I’m too analytical…)

    Ray Bradbury said in one of his writing essays that you need to make the reader feel ‘the sun on the arm resting outside the car window, the feel of the wind ruffling his shirt sleeve’ and if you can do that, you can convince the reader he’s there. His concrete sensual details anchor his storytelling and make it almost poetry. He also advised reading poetry every day because it will change your writing.

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